Institute Fellows 2020/21: Steven Broom
In this post Steven Broom, Senior Lecturer in Mathematics, continues our series of posts by Fellows of the Institute of Teaching and Learning. Steven’s experience as Admissions Lead makes him aware of the breadth of backgrounds that our students come from. This awareness influenced the focus of his ITL Fellowship project, which he reflects on here.
What did you set out to do, and did this change during the progress of your project?
My project aimed to examine how to improve academic support for students. This would include the issue of identifying those most in need of support and encouraging engagement with the support on offer. As a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics I had already created a ‘Consolidation’ course and simple diagnostic test to provide support for students who might benefit from it. The intention was that my project would inform significant improvements to this system and, potentially, lead to a completely different approach.
It soon became clear that I would have to narrow the focus of the project and I began to concentrate on support for first year students in the Faculty of Science and Engineering. We sought input from students in that Faculty about their experience and opinions of academic support. We also sought input from academic staff across that Faculty and from academics at other Universities.
What has come out of your project?
The project identified some popular and effective practices which will lead to significant changes to the Mathematics Consolidation approach. For example, sessions will be run by undergraduates supported by a lecturer. The content will be flexible, sometimes based on exam questions and supplemented with Q&A sessions about study skills, careers and university life.
There was significant support for a series of Faculty-wide sessions addressing cross-discipline topics such as MATLAB (a programming platform designed specifically for engineers and scientists), Further Maths content, study skills, and so on. I am in the process of exploring how these can be introduced, initially via Zoom.
Some students were keen to continue the conversation about support in FSE and we will be setting up an Academic Support Working Group to discuss ideas and reflect on what can improve across the Faculty.
What was new for you in this experience? Were there any surprises?
Having no background in research, the project really took me out of my comfort zone. Designing and deploying a questionnaire and follow-up focus group was much more complex and time-consuming than I imagined. Feedback from students was not at all as I had expected and I was often disappointed to find that there was no clear and obvious pattern emerging. There is no silver bullet in designing academic support for students, there are huge differences in what individuals want, need and engage with, even when considering a relatively narrow cohort.
How did you find working with a student partner?
Working with ITL student partners, Nick Threadgold and Iram Hassan, was a highlight of the project. Their energy and focus kept the project moving forward when I got bogged down. Their experience as undergraduates gave them very relevant insights into the issues being addressed and forced me to put aside my preconceptions. Meeting with them weekly gave me deadlines to work to and made me structure the timeline of the project.
What did you get out of the Fellowship, as a practitioner?
The main outcome was a better understanding of how the Consolidation course can be improved to better meet the needs of the target students. I also have a much stronger understanding of the variety of backgrounds and experiences of our students and how that translates to huge differences in their approaches to learning and support. My teaching will benefit from having listened carefully to feedback from a wide range of students and colleagues. I’ve learned that my approach to support and to teaching in general will always be a compromise and I’ve been reminded of the need to be flexible and open minded, trying new approaches, observing, seeking feedback and adapting.
If you’d like to discuss Steven’s project further, or to arrange a presentation on his findings, get in touch: email@example.com.